Viridiana may seem like an odd film to fall in love with, but the Siren did, and hard, back in her college days when she was trying to see every European film denied her back home in Birmingham, Ala. Her first months in New York often found her in the college cafeteria with a copy of the New Yorker, staring at the listings, like a Soviet refugee transfixed by the overstuffed produce aisle at D'Agostino's. Viridiana was an early choice, and a formative experience. Along with Les Enfants du Paradis and a handful of others viewed around age 18, the Buñuel
film was an electrifying gateway drug to European cinema. However, there are many things the Siren loved when she was 18 that she loves no longer--Southern Comfort, four-inch heels, false eyelashes--so who knew how'd she react when Turner Classic Movies recently screened the movie.
Happily, the Siren can report that Viridiana still knocks her sideways. It has been dissected many times, by critical minds more refined than hers, but the Siren wants to tell you about why she loves this rather bleak, but utterly brilliant film.
Anybody here familiar with Alabama? To say it's religious down there is like remarking that Manhattan is urban. Now my late father and my beloved mother both grew up a few blocks from a local church--Baptist for Daddy, Methodist for Mom. They attended every Sunday until the day they left home, with the happy result that neither one wanted anything to do with weekly services as an adult. But they were Christian enough to want their offspring to choose a nice denomination to settle down with. So the Siren went often to several churches, spent a long time studying Catholicism, and in the end picked the box marked "none of the above." She was tired of Jesus. He kept turning up in the Siren's daily life, whether she invited Him or not, usually invoked by people who wanted to tell her she was wrong. The Siren started to regard the Lord the way other people saw Chuck Barris--someone who pops up to tell you the gong has rung and the fun's all over.
So the lights go down on Viridiana, and the Siren's eyelids pop. There, up on screen, was every seething, rebellious thought she ever had during a Sunday sermon, or while resisting recruitment for the Brothers And Sisters in Christ club, or listening to Coach Jeffries at the pep rally asking Jesus to help us whup the Spartans on Friday night.
For those who haven't seen it--and if you haven't, what else are you doing that's so important?--a little plot summary. Gorgeous Viridiana (Sylvia Pinal) is a novice at a local convent, and one day she is told she should visit her uncle, local farmer Don Jaime. When Viridiana arrives, her uncle, played by a gloriously lecherous Fernando Rey, is thunderstruck by her resemblance to his dead wife. From there out, he is obsessed with getting his virginal niece into bed. What follows includes a drugging and contemplated rape, a nice little episode of foot fetishism and the uncle's abrupt exit. Don Jaime's illegitimate son Jorge (Francisco Rabal) arrives and he too lusts for Viridiana, but is content to wait for her to see the error of her virginity. She takes over the farm and tries to set up a sort of rural food kitchen for the local beggars, but they prove to be about as salvageable as her uncle. To watch the film is to see Viridiana's Christian ideals taken apart, hanged, burnt, tied up, knifed, buried and seduced into a possible game of strip tute. Maybe others find it depressing. To me, it's pure adrenalin. That night in New York, if I could have found Luis Buñuel, I'd have touched the hem of his garment.
You can find a lot of writing on Viridiana around the Web, some of it claiming that the film is anti-Catholic but not anti-Christianity, and it really isn't all that shocking anymore. To which the Siren says, poppycock. If you could show the BASIC club or Coach Jeffries this movie, I guarantee they would ban it just as fast as Pope John XXIII did. If Viridiana's sensual pleasure in whipping herself while wearing a crown of thorns didn't do it, the beggars' celebrated burlesque of the Last Supper would. You can easily turn a screening into a game of Spot the Blasphemy.
Christian beliefs are hung out to dry (in one instance literally), but the film has no special contempt for Christians personally. Viridiana isn't a bad sort, just rather dopey and possessed of a virgin's tendency to think all the other characters are making sexual innuendos at her expense. (Sometimes they are, as with Rabal; sometimes they aren't, as when Pinal is invited to milk a cow.) Her vows of poverty aren't admirable, but neither are they especially despicable. They are just Viridiana's particular way of entertaining herself, no more or less worthy than jumping rope or drugging someone's tea.
There is a great deal of political satire too, although in Buñuel's memoirs he said that when General Franco saw the movie he didn't see what the fuss was about. To the Siren, this just demonstrates that dictators aren't always very bright. (John Nesbit at Toxic Universe points out the acid implication of the line, "The weeds have taken over the past 20 years... And beyond the second floor, the house is overrun with spiders.")
But there is little comfort for the do-gooder liberal, either. Buñuel refuses to romanticize poverty. There is nothing ennobling or beautiful about it, whether it is chosen like Viridiana's, or forced by circumstances like that of the beggars. They aren't purehearted children of the sod, oppressed by the system. They're just poor, and creepy, and eager to grab any momentary gratification. Emerging from poverty is purely a matter of luck, as it is for an abused mutt in the movie's other celebrated sequence. Whether you seek it through Jesus or the kindness of the better-off, your illusion of salvation is just that.
Buñuel made this film after a 22-year exile from Spain. (Here the Siren sees a bit of similarity to Robert Altman, another gleefully godless filmmaker: Invited to return to his homeland and make a movie, Buñuel made a lengthy disquisition on what bums they all were.) If Franco wasn't incensed, plenty of others got the point. When Viridiana was released, it was promptly banned in Spain and denounced by the Vatican. Spain's chief censor was forced to resign. Even Sturges and Lubitsch didn't manage to get the censors fired. If that doesn't tell you Viridiana's worth, the Siren doesn't know what will.